$15M settlement reached after 'simultaneous overlapping surgeries' reported at Texas medical centers: Feds

A $15 million settlement was agreed upon in a Texas federal court over claims that Houston medical centers ran more than one operating room simultaneously and allowed unqualified medical residents to perform heart surgeries.

Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center (BSLMC), Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and Surgical Associates of Texas P.A. (SAT) have jointly agreed to pay the settlement for the allegations federal prosecutors said transpired from June 2013 to December 2020, according to a Justice Department news release.

Within BSLMC is a teaching hospital that employs BCM physicians and residents who perform services at the medical center, federal prosecutors said. The BCM physicians accused of the wrongdoing include Dr. Joseph Coselli, 71, of Houston, and Dr. Joseph Lamelas, 63, of Miami, Florida, according to a stipulation of dismissal court document.

Lamelas is accused of performing "hundreds of simultaneous overlapping surgeries" during his two-year stint at Baylor, according to the court filings. Although physically impossible to do the number of overlapping surgeries, Lamelas still wrote on medical records that he performed the procedures as he was getting paid per procedure, the document continued.

Dr. David Ott, 77, of Houston, is also named in the court records as being a part of the misconduct, but he is a cardiothoracic surgeon affiliated with the medical practice group, SAT, the prosecutors in the Southern District of Texas said.

Baylor College of Medicine releases statement following $15 million settlement

Baylor College of Medicine emailed a statement to USA TODAY on Tuesday in response to the settlement.

"Baylor College of Medicine did not engage in conduct that violates any applicable federal law or regulation. It is also important to note that no patients were harmed," Robert Corrigan Jr, general counsel for Baylor College of Medicine, said in the statement.

"The settlement agreement acknowledged that BCM disputed that any violations of federal law occurred and that the College being a party to the agreement is not an admission of liability by Baylor. The College decided to amicably resolve the dispute prior to a trial on the merits after considering the cost and expense incurred by Baylor to date, and anticipated future costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees.”

USA TODAY contacted the SAT on Tuesday afternoon but has not received a response.

Whistleblower reported medical misconduct to feds

The investigation into the misconduct began on Aug. 7, 2019, when a whistleblower filed a complaint alleging the doctors "engaged in a regular practice of running two operating rooms at once and delegating key aspects of extremely complicated and risky heart surgeries to unqualified medical residents," according to the Justice Department.

"The heart surgeries at issue are some of the most complicated operations performed at any hospital including coronary artery bypass grafts, valve repairs and aortic repair procedures," according to the release. "These surgeries typically involve opening a patients’ chest and placing the patient on the bypass machine for some portion of time."

Teaching physicians have to abide by Medicare regulations which dictate when they can leave the operating room during procedures, regardless of how complex they are, prosecutors said. When the surgeons were running the two operating rooms at once, they did not hold a surgical "timeout," which allows the medical team to pause and discuss key risks to prevent surgical errors, according to the allegations, per the court documents.

To make it seem as if the teaching physicians were present during the "entire" operation, they would lie on medical records, the court filings say. The medical staff also would not tell patients that the surgeon planned on leaving the room to perform another operation, the documents continued.

'Patients entrusted these surgeons with their lives'

Baylor not only knew about the false statements made on the medical records, but the school's medical center also scheduled the operating rooms for the overlapping surgeries, provided the resources for the simultaneous procedures and provided physician trainees to perform the operations while the teaching physicians were not present, according to the allegations, per court documents.

“Patients entrusted these surgeons with their lives − submitting to operations where one missed cut is the difference between life and death,” U.S. Attorney Alamdar Hamdani said in the release. “Allegedly, the patients were unaware their doctor was leaving for another operating room. This settlement reaffirms the importance of Medicare requirements governing surgeon presence and ensuring that no physician − no matter how prominent or successful − can skirt around the rules.”

Under the False Claims Act, the private whistleblower who reported the allegations will receive over $3 million from the settlement, the Justice Department said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas medical centers reach $15M settlement after whistleblower report